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Monday 22 October 2007

Ubuntu (2) [DrDave]

I've been here before. I've been here before many times. I liken my vigil to that of the dutiful village elder, the custodian of an ancient tradition and keeper of prophecy. Since time before reckoning has he undertaken a yearly climb to the summit of the mountain fortold in a vain search for signs of the returning King. Every year does he climb, every year does he return forlorn and despondant. "Does he return Greybeard?", the people eagerly ask. "Neigh gentlefolk", he replies, "neigh".

These ten long years passed have I maintained such a vigil. Though I look not for signs of a hero's return. Rather, I quest for signs of a viable desktop OS replacement. Okay, this is far less romantic, involves considerably less climbing and means that I can continue this blog without the tiresome archaic-o-prose.

That's better.

Vista is a pretty tired OS, don't you think? I've got it on my laptop, have used it for about 4 months and I find myself distinctly unarroused by it. I don't hate - in fact, it feels just like a re-skin of XP. It doesn't seem to do anything particularly revolutionary though, it just kind of exists (and sometimes wobbles). Boring. But underneath that flacid facade, there beats a sinister heart. The not-so-subtle introduction of such mechanisms as WGA and DRM have left me thinking that my mantra of "never pay for an OS (but give generously to charity)" will no longer be a workable philosophy. Don't get me wrong, I'm still down with MS, I just reckon it would be nice to have a choice in the matter.

Linux has never really been that choice though. An over-enthusiasm for editing config files and a community populated by those insufficiently perfumed gentlemen for whom a dollar sign is an acceptable substitute for a captial-S... These elements do not combine to make an operating system you could happily give to your Ma to look up scone recipes with.

But it's getting there. With last weeks release of Ubuntu 7.10 Linux took one large step in the right direction. For the record, there are two main reasons why I usually give up on Linux:
  • Lack of comprehensive hardware support. I always seem to end up sacrificing something - be it proper 3D drivers, Bluetooth, power management or something;
  • I miss two or three core programmes from Windows - replacements exist, but they're just not as good. Programmes like Digiguide or Mirc;

For the first point, it is too early to tell whether this release is the one to cure this problem. Certainly the install worked brilliantly and within 20 minutes I had rebooted into a fully configured OS with everything apprently working. I would even go so far as to say that this surpasses the ease of setting up Vista (for this laptop anyway, which needs a whole world of proprietary drivers). Gimme a couple of weeks and ask me again.

The second point is really what this blog is all about. It's not an evangelical "use this OS blog", it's really a "wow, this was pretty cool" kind of thing. See, Linux has pretty much always had Windows support in the form of Wine, certainly as long as I've been tinkering with it. But previously it had never been remotely viable - it was a pig to configure, it was temperamental, it was slow, desktop apps looked just plain weird and didn't integrate well with the systray. But there always remained a glimmer of hope...

With precisely zero optimism, I attempted to get Digiguide working under Wine. The first surprise came when I downloaded the executable. Firefox recognised it as a Windows exe and asked if I wanted to open it with Wine. Why not, I thought. Up pops the familiar Windows installer, it installs and it runs. Just like that, prefectly. It minimises to the system tray, pops up notifications and reminders and generally behaves and looks like a native app.

I'm impressed, so I throw Mirc at it. Again, it runs, installs and works. It even creates a shortcut on the desktop and in the programme menu for you. Whizzer!

At the point, I'm getting cocky, so I give it the Steam installer. I fully expect it to fall over, and don't really care since everyone knows that you need a dual-boot for Windows games, right? This is undoubtably still the case, but Wine happily devoured Steam. And to my utter bewdilerment and amazement, it downloaded and installed Portal and TF2... and ran them at a perfectly acceptable frame rate at full resolution.

Regardless of whether you use it, or could find any use for it, that is cool by anyone's standards. Look, here's a linky to an image showing it all happening:

"Greybeard, is Ubuntu yet a viable replacement as an everyday desktop OS?", the people eagerly ask. "Listen, gentlefolk, I've been up yonder mountain all night getting my drink on and now I've got a storming headache and just want to listen to some Floyd, dig?"


  1. It even runs some games straight :

    dunno, if you like fiddling I suppose it's OK. I even tried a live cd of feisty fawn. But I can't actually answer the question..."why bother?" 7.10 vs xp :


  2. As ever, it'll come down to gaming. If you want to play PC games, it's a no-brainer. Windows all the way, Linux isn't going to be a viable alternative anytime soon, if ever.

    But for someone who doesn't play PC games, or for a laptop in front of the TV that you just use for IRC and emails, then it's almost there I reckon. The ability to WINE certain Windows apps transparently just makes it a little bit more palatable. I'm deeply tempted to give it a proper go on my laptop and delete Vista completely (to remove the tempatation).


  3. I think the old adage of familiarity breeds contempt is the case when it comes to Microsoft's efforts. Sure there's nothing gee-whizz wow in Vista but I think it's pretty unfair to call it a straight reskin also. If Linux added everyting vista added with one destro, people would be crying from the rooftops.

    That said there is clearly a place for Linux now. Machines that basically do basic applications, web, mail etc. I've always thought the most logical place I'd end up putting Linux would actually be on a laptop. Laptop performance I always find deeply annoying generally because the hard drives are excruciatingly slow. Everything thrashes, you have half as much memory (or less) and it's just nasty, and then there's the entire minutes of boot time involved.

    Traditionally when I tried Linux the boot times really weren't great and of course there was pretty much zero support for all of the power saving stuff which you really need on a laptop.

    The games stuff is a curiosity and pretty cool I agree but really just being able to run those little apps is good enough, deeply useful shit while any actual PC gamer (everyone other than Dave) will obviously use Windows.

    The thing is when you start to talk about linux and laptops you realise hey, do you even need all that hardware. Also big in the news lately is the stupidly named Asus Eee PC. This is a cracking idea. Ship something with all this shit build and set up right. Remove the HD from it altogether and you're coming very close to basically everything you really want to do on a laptop on something that costs pretty much nothing.

    You seem to be looking at Ubuntu as more of an actual desktop replacement on any PC, assuming gaming isn't your major thing. I dunno, I'm still hesitant about that because you just go and change something and suddenly stuff breaks and you're into major grief scenario to find out how shit works just to fix it. The real question is, what real advantages does running Ubuntu bring to someone running Vista on their PC. Other than the removal of a very great many features?

    Don't get me wrong, I think the fact there's an alternative seemingly at last is damn cool. I'm not seeing the actual point of it though. It still strikes me that the major point of this stuff remains that it's not Microsoft. For many, including me, that's not nearly enough.


  4. Good points, and I can't really argue with them. Just a couple of things though...

    The configuration issue seems to have improved massively in recent years, and in this release I don't think I've had to edit an /etc configuration file at all so far. Package installation is flawless using the Synaptic package manager, which deal with dependencies and what not. Updates are all done by the OS automatically. You don't even need to mess with fstab to mount shares these day. It all just kind of works.

    On the subject of "why bother?". I agree that "because it's not Microsoft" isn't a good reason at the moment, but I have a feeling that it may well be a good reason in the future. I don't like the idea of WGA style tactics, I'm not fan of paying-per-license, or reactivating when you swap out a hard drive or any of the various "innovations" that Vista has introduced. Fair enough, they're mostly side-stepable at the moment, and not massively troublesome beyond a phonecall to a man in India, but I'm not comfortable that MS has created an infrastructure where it can flick a switch and lockdown all the freedoms we currently enjoy.

    Paranoid conspiracies? Probably. I make no bones about this sounding all fairly far fetched. But it pays to keep abreast of alternatives.

    Plus, Open Source, though we mock its proponents mercilessly, is a pretty noble aim to my mind. A born tinkerer am I and having the freedom to tweak and configure to my hearts content appeals mightilly. Unfortunately, so does the slick interface and polished veneer of MS Windows. Can the two philosophies coexist? I like to think they might, one day.


  5. I'm sure is flawless from scratch but upgrades definately are not. And who knows what will happen down the line?

    I have no issue with WGA itself. I mean wouldn't they be stupid not to not take steps to make sure they're not giving free updates to people who have thieved their software? I've never quite understood why that's unreasonable. The Vista licensing stuff is deeply fucked up I agree. The only Vista which is priced near what it ought to be priced is the OEM Vista Home Premium. You switch shit and it needs to be reactivated. That's evil, or more specifically the retail Vista being £300 is evil. So yeah, I'll give you that alright. Although I reinstalled an OEM one on a new PC but had to phone through to some Indian call-center and get him to read out a 100-digit number for me to reactivate. They did it, but I shouldn't have to do that. £70 should be for the goddamn OS because their choice is, realistically, £70 or I just go and pirate it.

    About open source. I don't think you need to run Linux to validate open source. It's cool, it works, and it'll continue forever. I don't really buy into the fact you're selling the whole open source concept down the shitter because you opt to use something commercial. Open source is in the market place to compete along with anything else. It doesn't have to be as good, since it's free, but it does have to be comparable. Quite often it's not because it suffers from the too-many-cooks scenario and because most of the developers understandably cannot be arsed to implement features and design to account for computer numpties, when they'd rather make cool new features for geeks.


  6. I gave up on it. I'm back in Vista.

    Two weeks is my longest yet though, so it is making progress. What made me come back? Not one thing in particular really, just the usual feeling that Ubuntu is held together by spit and sticky tape. I had a problem where the system absolutely would not remember the clocks going back an hour. Every time I restarted from hibernation, it was an hour forward. I couldn't quite figure out how to VPN to work while keeping my normal internet connection alive. The constant entering of passwords to get wifi keys out of the keyring. General slowness of the graphics drivers. The fact that the most reliable software I was using was mirc and Digiguide.

    So. Nice try Ubuntu. It's definitely getting there, but not this year I don't think.


  7. Ubuntu has come a long way, I particularly like one of its off-shoots; XUbuntu. I think in so far as laptops are specifically concerned, Linux needs to work on the power saving features, as mentioned by Lurks. And in relation to gaming there isn't really much point going for anything other then Windows.

    As a development environment, a webserver or mail server though I find Linux to be so much more useful then Windows. I've also hashed together a NAS running an open source linux operating system, which runs pretty flawlessly just sitting in a cupboard.

    I don't dislike Microsoft, nor am I one of these people who doesn't use Microsoft products becuase they're Microsoft. It's just that there are better products out there for certain things, and people can be woken up to that.

    It's nice to see that WINE has come so far as well. I remember the god awful days of trying to get that to work with Suse 5 and Windows 2000. Shudder.


  8. That bag's loveley though!

    I trued Kubuntu (Gusty) & SUSE 10.3 live CDs last night. Kubuntu was OK apart from the fact that it wouldn't go up to the native res of my monitor & wouldn't drive the second monitor at all. SUSEs support wiki was quite good with a link to a repository to install ATi drivers, but networking didn't work out of the box either with that.